Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Mosul: The Origins and Future of Competing Agendas over Retaking the City from Isis

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Mosul: The Origins and Future of Competing Agendas over Retaking the City from Isis

Article excerpt


In mid-August of 2016, a war of words erupted between Erbil, seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq's capital, Baghdad. On Wednesday, August 17, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said that the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, should "stay where they are now and not expand their presence." 1 Deputy US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner responded that the Peshmerga should listen to Baghdad. "I think it's absolutely important, and we've emphasized this all along, that the Peshmerga and all the various fighting groups in Iraq need to be under the command and control of the Iraqi government."2 The KRG's Peshmerga Ministry responded that according to the Iraqi constitution the Peshmerga are not under the command and control of Baghdad.3

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesperson Safeen Dizayee noted on August 21 that areas the Peshmerga had liberated would remain in Kurdish hands after ISIS was defeated. 4 Mohammed Saihoud, a Shi'i member of Parliament from the State of Law Coalition, allied with former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, responded that Kurds would be seen as "occupiers" in areas they were liberating, including the ISIS-held city of Mosul. On August 21, Bashar Kiki, head of the Nineveh Provincial Council, told media that the Peshmerga "has five options to enter the city, the Iraqi army only has one in the southeast of Mosul through the Kurdish region." 5 The office of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani put the issue to rest on August 20 saying that the KRG would stand by previous agreements signed between the Kurds, Baghdad and the US-led coalition.6

This back and forth between the three major players in the war on ISIS in Iraq-the Kurds, the Iraqi army and the coalition-is part of a cycle that has repeated numerous times since ISIS captured swaths of northern and central Iraq in 2014. In some ways they mirror disputes that pre-dated ISIS but which have become more concrete during the war. As the Iraqi government has defeated ISIS in the Sunni triangle, taking Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, the gate to Mosul lies open to its forces.

The coalition knows that it can only move as fast as the Iraqi army is willing to progress, even as it adds resources to the conflict.7 The Kurds play a slow waiting game as their 1,000 kilometers of frontlines inch closer to Mosul. The August 2016 dispute with Baghdad was likely set in motion by a small offensive near Gwer in which Kurds took 12 villages with 5,000 Peshmerga on August 14 and 15, bringing them closer to the Christian town of Qaraqosh.

Decisions made prior to retaking Mosul will have long-term repercussions for the future of the Kurdish region, Baghdad and the Sunni areas. Most of the sides involved know this but they cannot agree on which outcome they want. Much of this is rooted in history.


Mosul sits on the Tigris river at the heart of the Nineveh plains which were the location of ancient cities such as Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud. It was a center of trade connecting Anatolia and the Gulf of Syria with Baghdad and what is now Iran.8 A regional center9, Mosul lost some of its regional power as an Ottoman vilayet to Baghdad after 1910.10 The treaty of Sevres anticipated that a plebiscite would be held concerning Mosul, which was considered for inclusion in an autonomous Kurdish state, however, this idea was almost immediately abandoned by the British in 1920.11

The first shots of the 1920 Iraq rebellion were fired against the British in Tal Afar, just down the road from Mosul, and the region was plunged into low-level insurgency for several years. In a foreshadowing of today's competing agendas, the Turks coveted the area of Mosul and rejected the idea of an "unruly Kurdish state," while the "Iraqis did not want to single out areas for any form of special treatment which would limit authority of the government. …

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